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5 March 2014
Neolithic bones discovered in Irish cave

Human skeletal remains of a child and an adult dating to the Neolithic period have been recovered from a tiny cave on Knocknarea (co Sligo, Ireland). Radiocarbon dating has shown that they are some 5,500 years old, which makes them among the earliest human bones found in the county. The find represents important fresh evidence of Knocknarea's Neolithic links and a prehistoric practice known as 'excarnation'.
     Archaeologists discovered a total of 13 small bones and bone fragments in an almost inaccessible cave last November. Three were from the child and 10 from the adult. They included foot bones and fragments of skull. The adult was aged 30 to 39 and the child of 4 to 6 years. It was not possible to establish gender.
     It was a chance discovery by IT Sligo archaeology graduate Thorsten Kahlert while he was investigating a series of little known caves on the slopes of Knocknarea. "I was surveying one small cave when something on the cave floor caught my eye," he said. "I took a closer look and realised it was a human foot bone." Further examination revealed other bones strewn on the cave floor.
     Dr Catriona McKenzie of Queen's University Belfast, who is an archaeologist specialising in the analysis of human bones, examined the remains. After Thorsten's initial discovery, Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo immediately contacted the National Monuments Service. It then funded a rescue excavation by the two IT Sligo researchers who braved wet and windy weather as they retrieved the exposed bones to protect them from possible environmental damage.
     Thorsten explained: "It is an entirely natural cave but you have to crouch down. For the most part it is not possible to stand upright". Dr Dowd said: "Significantly, too, it seems the adult had been placed there about 300 years before the child, who died about 5,200 years ago."
     Dr Dowd says that the small number of bones and their small size suggest that the cave was an excarnation site. Dr Dowd said:  "When people died in prehistory, their corpses were sometimes laid out in caves. After one or two years, when the flesh and soft tissue had decomposed, the dry bones were collected and removed to another location. We can imagine, therefore, that Stone Age people in Sligo carried the corpses of their dead up the mountain. After an arduous climb, they then squeezed through the narrow cave entrance, and laid the dead person on the cave floor. Sometime later, maybe after one or two years, people returned to the cave and collected the bones and took them to another location."
     Dr Dowd colcuded: "Where they took them, we don't know. But the monuments on the summit of Knocknarea are one likely possibility. All that was left behind in the cave were some small bones that had been overlooked".

Edited from Irish Mirror (28 February 2014)

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